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Mille Lacs winter walleye season coming; DNR sees hopeful signs

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Ice fishing on Mille Lacs
While officials have stopped short of announcing an ice fishing season for Mille Lacs walleye, it's clear that a season will happen. Here, fish houses dotted the lake during a past winter.
Timo Gans | AFP | Getty Images 2006

Updated 5 p.m. | Posted 2:14 p.m.

Resort owners around Lake Mille Lacs were relieved Monday after state officials approved an ice fishing season on the lake this winter. 

The news comes just two months after the state was forced to close the open-water walleye season on the lake early amid ongoing concerns about the fishery and the long-term decline of its walleye. 

That early summer closing hurt many businesses whose fortunes are tied to walleye fishing. They, along with Gov. Mark Dayton, had pressed the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for a winter season to help ease those financial struggles. Officials said they would not decide until after seeing the results of a September fish survey.

On Monday, however, the DNR said the survey showed positive signs for Mille Lacs walleye, which opened the door to a winter season. 

The fall netting surveys showed a strong number of spawning walleye in the lake, and strong numbers of walleye born two years ago in the lake — the so-called 2013 year class, said DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira. 

Because of that, Minnesota officials set a cap of 5,000 pounds that walleye anglers can catch and keep this winter from Mille Lacs. That's nearly 40 percent more than the 3,100 pounds taken from the lake last winter.

That's huge for the Mille Lacs economy. An ice fishing season is vital for many resorts and businesses around the lake. Many resort owners say winter months account for up to 75 percent of their business.

Business owners can now begin preparing for the ice fishing season, said Tina Chapman with Mille Lacs Area Tourism.

"We've just been kind of standing at a stand-still, waiting," she said. "So it's good news."

Linda Eno, who runs Twin Pines resort on the southern shore of Mille Lacs, was similarly thrilled.

"January is my busiest month of the year," she said. "All of a sudden my 13 unit hotel turns into a 53 unit hotel, because I have 40 rental fish houses."

Pereira said he understands ice fishing is important to Mille Lacs businesses that the DNR is taking a cautious approach to the ice fishing season. 

"The key thing, the harder they push the winter, the more challenging it can be to keep the fishery open during the open water season."

That's because any fish harvested this winter will be subtracted from the state's share of the lake's total safe allowable harvest. 

Pereira said DNR and Chippewa tribal biologists will meet to determine what that level is in January. 

"Last year we had an allocation to the state that was 28,600 pounds," he said. "There's no reason to expect current season would be more than that."

Walleye numbers in Mille Lacs have hit a 30-year low. Not enough young walleye are surviving to maturity, a problem that has flummoxed biologists and prompted changes at the DNR. 

The department is opening a new fisheries office at Mille Lacs and launching a pilot stocking program next year. 

DNR officials are meeting with a new Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee on Wednesday to get input on how to set the specific ice fishing regulations for this winter. 

Eno, who sits on that committee, says for many ice anglers, catching and keeping fish is often not that important. 

"It's kind of about the camaraderie, and getting away from the big city. Sitting in a fish house, playing some cribbage, sipping a few beers."